With Prince Harry set to marry Meghan Markle in just over three weeks’ time, we look back to another royal wedding 95 years ago today, that of his great-grandfather King George VI.
Christened Albert Frederick Arthur George, he was known publicly as Albert until his unexpected accession to the throne in 1936, when he took the title of King George. He was born on December 14th, 1895, in the reign of his great-grandmother, Queen Victoria. The day of his birth was the 34th anniversary of the death of Victoria’s beloved husband and Prince Consort, Albert, and he was named in memory of his great-grandfather.
Among the royal family and close friends, he was known as ‘Bertie’ throughout his life. As a child he was often ill, suffering from chronic stomach problems and becoming ‘knock-kneed’, for which he was forced to wear painful corrective splints. He also developed a stammer which would plague his later life.
Despite continued health problems, he saw active service in the Royal Navy during the First World War and was mentioned in despatches for his actions during the Battle of Jutland in 1916. He was also the first member of the royal family to qualify as a pilot, serving with the newly-formed Royal Air Force after it absorbed the Royal Naval Air Service.
After the war he studied at Cambridge and began taking on more royal duties, often touring coal mines, factories and rail yards and taking a keen interest in improving working conditions. In 1920 he met Lady Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon, the youngest daughter of the Earl and Countess of Strathmore and Kinghorne, and became determined to marry her.
At that time, it was expected that royals would marry members of other royal houses, but because Albert was a second son and not expected to become king, he was given more freedom in his choice of a bride. But his intended also had a choice and twice turned down his proposals because she was reluctant to make the sacrifices needed to join the royal family. He persevered and his third proposal was accepted.
The couple were married in Westminster Abbey on April 26th, 1923. Albert’s marriage to someone who was not of royal birth was seen as a modernising gesture at the time. The newly-established BBC wanted to broadcast the wedding on radio, but its request was turned down, not by the royal family but by the Abbey’s senior clergy.
Settling down to married life at their London residence in Piccadilly, they lived a relatively private life and had two daughters, Elizabeth, born in 1926, and Margaret, four years later. Unlike many aristocratic families at that time, Albert and Elizabeth played an active part in the everyday upbringing of their children and were known to be a close and loving family.
One nagging problem was Albert’s stammer, which caused him considerable distress when he had to speak in public as part of his royal duties. After several such ordeals, he began seeing Australian-born speech therapist Lionel Logue, whose unconventional methods helped him gradually overcome his difficulties. Their working relationship was the subject of award-winning 2010 film “The King’s Speech”, starring Colin Firth, Geoffrey Rush and Helena Bonham-Carter.
When King George V died in January 1936, Albert’s elder brother Edward ascended the throne, but his reign would be short-lived. After less than a year he abdicated to marry his mistress, American Wallis Simpson, who was divorced from her first husband and divorcing her second. Faced with an ultimatum of ‘Wallis or the throne’, Edward chose Wallis. It meant that, on December 11th, 1936, Albert became king, albeit reluctantly, and in doing so took the regnal name of George VI.
Some voiced concern, privately and publicly, about his suitability for the role, but with his queen at his side he steadily gained in popularity. Two things helped, the first being a more relaxed and informal style, with the press given more access than ever before to the couple’s family life, and especially the two young princesses. The second was the couple’s refusal to leave London during the Second World War, even at the height of the Blitz. Instead they toured bomb sites, meeting ordinary people, strengthening their resolve and winning their hearts.
The king’s health, however, remained fragile, not helped by exhausting duties during the war and his heavy smoking, which led to lung cancer and various other ailments. On February 6th, 1952, he was found dead in his bed at Sandringham, having died in his sleep from a coronary thrombosis at the age of 56. Just as he had ascended suddenly to the throne, so did his eldest daughter, becoming Queen Elizabeth II, while his widow became Queen Elizabeth the Queen Mother. She would outlive him by half-a-century, dying in March 2002 at the age of 101.